End of coal in Ontario? Not if there’s a power crunch

When electricity was restored to Toronto and elsewhere in Ontario after the ice storm of December 21, nobody cared where or how the current was generated and pushed through the wires to their house. All people cared about was getting their power back. Electricity is an utterly essential component in modern life. Conservation rhetoric notwithstanding, people need power. That is why so many ran out to get gasoline-powered generators during the outage. Nobody really cared that gasoline-fired power generation is several times dirtier than coal-fired.

This is an essential fact of electricity policy. People need power.

So when the environmental crowd, led by lobbyists who work for the natural gas industry, cheered as the last Nanticoke coal-fired unit came offline earlier this week, I just rolled my eyes. Nanticoke, with eight 455-megawatt generators, and Lambton, with four of similar size, have not been stripped of their physical ability to generate electricity. If necessary, they can any time be re-fired with coal and putting power into our wires. And in a power crunch, that is exactly what will happen.

We talk a good environmental game, but when it comes down to it we need power and we will get it from anywhere.

Ontario proved that before, in the late 1990s. Because of ideological and short-sighted government policy, the province’s nuclear workforce capacity had been severely curtailed. For this reason, when it came time to refurbish nuclear generators at the Bruce A and Pickering A stations, the workforce lacked the capacity to carry out such a huge job (see article). The reactors were therefore taken offline. But the reactors had been generating massive amounts of cheap electricity. What would replace their output?

The answer was coal. The same stations that were recently taken offline, Nanticoke and Lambton, built in Ontario’s headlong rush for new capacity in the 1970s and 80s, were waiting to be pressed into service as baseload providers. And they came into service in the late 1990s, to replace the suddenly laid up nuclear units.

Note that this was exactly the time that public concern over anthropogenic greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions had risen to the point that the Canadian federal government signed the Kyoto Protocol to cut GHGs.

Note also that this heightened public concern over GHGs had zero effect on how Ontario replaced its nuclear output. We used the coal plants because we need power.

And if we need it urgently enough, we will press the same coal-fired plants back into service.

Now, what conditions could arise that bring this about? High natural gas prices, for one. While it is true that Ontario has built gas-fired power generation capacity, it is also true that this has occurred during a spectacular lull in gas prices. Ontario power prices have still spiked into the stratosphere. Well, if the price of gas goes up, and it will, the public, already chafing under the current high electricity prices, will say enough is enough.

And Ontario will go back to good old reliable cheap coal.

We should be building new nuclear plants, right now.

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